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Decay and stagnation blighting Northern Ireland public services, says NICS chief David Sterling

David Sterling
David Sterling
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Public services are suffering from "decay and stagnation", the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has said.

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Speaking at the Northern Ireland Economic Conference in Newcastle, Co Down, David Sterling added that despite the efforts of civil servants, the local economy was lagging behind the rest of the UK, particularly in terms of productivity.

In 2017 Northern Ireland's GVA per hours worked was just over four-fifths of the UK average, with the region 11th in a league table of 12, Mr Sterling explained, also stressing that there were signs the local economy was starting to slow down.

"The economy has shown signs of improvement over the last number of years, particularly in the labour market. However, progress has begun to slow more recently and there are warning signs from some key economic indicators," he stressed.

The NICS chief said Ulster Bank's monthly purchasing managers' index - which he described as a key tool in measuring the impact of Brexit - had shown a "marked deterioration" in business conditions since the start of the year.

"Businesses are telling colleagues in the Department for the Economy that the lack of Brexit information from central government is inhibiting their ability to plan for the future, especially when considering new capital investment or the pursuit of new contracts," he added.

"Some have suggested that they are now at the point when they will have to make a definite decision about where to locate their business in future."

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Mr Sterling told the audience he remained optimistic that devolution would be restored, even if it was unlikely in the short-term, and that civil servants were doing all they could to keep Northern Ireland ticking over in the meantime.

"We are doing our best to keep things running, but we are in danger of accepting a new normal where yesterday's solutions are all that's on offer" he said.

"Our public services are suffering from what we have termed 'strategic decay and stagnation'.

"We see this in our hospital waiting lists, which are unacceptably long. We see this in our schools, which are under immense budgetary pressure. We see this in our social housing, which has a growing maintenance backlog."

Yesterday's conference, which was organised by the AgendaNI magazine, also featured a group discussion on Brexit.

Panellist Paul MacFlynn, of the Nevin Economic Research Institute, said he had doubts about the deal reached by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, including the potential difficulties in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

"If there is friction, there may be those who will look at Northern Ireland market and think, 'It's a very small market and there are a lot of hoops to jump through for a small market'."

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said business faced "tough times" and stressed that firms that invested in a downturn would emerge from it in a healthier state.

"They may not have the capital for it, but now is time to invest in products, people, processes and markets," he added.

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